Gophers need wins

Sarah Mitchell

With an NCAA tournament appearance in jeopardy, Minnesota’s women’s volleyball team fell from the national poll this week. The Gophers (16-11 overall, 6-10 in the Big Ten) were ranked in the top 25 for nine consecutive weeks.
Even though the Gophers are experiencing a stormy conference season, piecing together more losing streaks than winning, sophomore outside hitter Nicole Branagh was not confused by Minnesota’s lengthy poll appearance.
“It’s a competitive year in the Big Ten,” Branagh said. “I think we’ve had a great season playing who we’ve played.”
Four matches remain on Minnesota’s schedule. After dropping two on the road last weekend, Gophers coach Mike Hebert predicted his team needed three wins to redeem itself in the eyes of the NCAA.
Unfortunately, two of the remaining matches are on the road. Minnesota owns an atrocious away record, managing to win only one match in eight attempts. The lone road victory came against Iowa, a team that has only two Big Ten wins.
“Maybe this will be our breakthrough weekend,” Gophers coach Mike Hebert said. “They will figure out how to win on the road.”
As Minnesota travels to Indiana on Friday and Northwestern on Saturday, the reason behind the road slump remains a mystery. Perhaps the team has a road anxiety or is just not, as Hebert called it, “road savvy.”
“I don’t know if we’re not ready to play or if it’s just nerves,” Branagh said. “We just don’t get started right away. We always come out good the second night, though.”
If Minnesota continues its streaky play, the outcome of this weekend will be familiar. Indiana and Northwestern — teams the Gophers swept at home in October — have plenty of motivation.
Northwestern is trying to salvage its first winning season since 1990, while Indiana wants to pad an already-broken record. The Hoosiers (15-11, 8-9) beat Northwestern (15-14, 5-12) 3-2 at home Wednesday to tally their 11th home victory of the season. Northwestern’s 11 wins at University Gym breaks a school record for victories set in 1988.
Minnesota might also be the recipient of some redirected anger. Both Indiana and Northwestern were upset in sweeps by Iowa at Carver-Hawkeye Arena last week, treating Iowa to its first and second league wins since early last season.
Branagh and senior Jill McDonell said the Gophers have had a solid week of practice and are ready for the challenge.
“Everyone’s been putting it on the line,” McDonell said. “I think we’ll finish strong. I think we’ll win all four.”
McDonell is a major part of Minnesota’s motivation as it packs up for the final Big Ten road trip of the season. The versatile player, who said “the thought of us not making the NCAA has not been a question,” is the team’s lone senior.
“I think that’s part of it, and I think it’s let’s do it for everybody,” Branagh said. “We all want to be there.”